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M. Cathleen KavenyMarch 12, 2014
In Search of the Goodby Daniel Callahan

The MIT Press. 232p $29

Many people claim that baseball is the “thinking person’s sport,” but I now believe that claim rightly applies only to spectators. After reading Daniel Callahan’s most recent two books, one a memoir, and the other a collection of essays spanning almost three decades of his career, I became convinced that the thinking person’s participatory sport of choice is actually swimming.

After winning a District of Columbia state championship and an athletic scholarship to Yale, Callahan gave up swimming competitively at the end of his junior year. But his subsequent career and life amply manifest the virtues associated with his sport of choice. Years of swim practice teach perseverance, while its attendant insulation from the bustling world facilitates independent rumination.

Callahan’s career, spanning over four decades, amply manifests both perseverance and intellectual independence. Together with his neighbor Willard Gaylin, M.D., Callahan conceived of the idea of an independent Institute for Society, Ethics and the Life Sciences, at a Christmas party in 1968. That institute, which became known as the Hastings Center, overcame its shaky financial beginnings to become the preeminent locus for the discussion of medical ethics in the country. It is not a university institute nor an advocacy-oriented think tank, but a true tertium quid—a freestanding center for study, debate and discussion that crosses not only disciplinary boundaries, but also bridges the even deeper chasm between scholars and practitioners, particularly in the fields of medicine and law. While physicians, philosophers, theologians and even lawyers wrote about medical-moral issues before Callahan came along, it was undeniably his vision that gave “bioethics” its initial shape as a distinct field of study.

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1930, Callahan came of age in a post-war America of expanding and fluid horizons. Yet Callahan would have made his own opportunities in any era; he is something of a restless soul. After graduating from Yale, he went on to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard. Disenchanted with analytic philosophy and lukewarm about spending his days grading term papers, he made the decision to leave the academy. During the exciting and tumultuous years before, during and after the Second Vatican Council, Callahan served as an editor of the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal. But journalism wasn’t his calling either. It was in the late 1960s that Callahan began to forge his true life’s work, as he conceived and built the Hastings Center, which has also provided the setting for his own prodigious writing projects over the years.

Callahan’s work in bioethics and health care policy is deeply shaped by the vocational options he tried and left behind. He rejected a teaching career in analytic philosophy because of the cramped and crabby scope of the field at the time he finished his doctorate. But his clear, precise and no-nonsense mode of inquiry bears the mark of his graduate training in the British analytic philosophical tradition. His commitment to writing for an educated general public rather than a tiny coterie of specialists reflects his experience as a magazine editor. In fact, so much does Callahan prize pithy, accessible, tightly reasoned prose that he considers it a greater accomplishment to get an opinion piece in The New York Times than to get an article published in a peer-reviewed academic journal.

Callahan’s work is also influenced by the faith he tried and left behind. He and his wife Sidney, a distinguished psychologist and ethicist in her own right, constituted a veritable Catholic power couple in the mid-1960s. The parents of six children, the Callahans were at the center of important conversations in the church about the Second Vatican Council’s renewal, as well as deeply involved in discussions of more specific contentious issues such as contraception, abortion and feminism.

By the end of the decade, however, Daniel’s faith had slowly drained away, while Sidney’s had grown stronger than ever. Although this divergence of belief understandably created some familial tensions, it did not fracture their relationship, as Sidney details in a moving recent online essay in Commonweal (“Learning Humility, Learning Patience,” 11/25/13). Indeed, the Callahans’ differences have proven fruitful not only for their own intellectual development, but also for the broader conversation. For example, their jointly edited volume, Abortion: Understanding Differences (Hastings Center, 1984), continues to illuminate the debate three decades after publication. Sidney is pro-life, while Daniel is pro-choice; years of discussion have not yielded agreement, but have strengthened mutual respect and understanding for the other’s position, while also prompting important nuances in their respective views. Perhaps the Callahans no longer qualify as a Catholic power couple. But their intense, enduring and comprehensive partnership models what many Catholics would see as a richly blessed marriage.

For the past 40 years, Daniel Callahan has been a secular thinker, albeit one who is not hostile to religious believers. At the same time, as his volume of collected essays reveals, he is a thinker who has secularized from Roman Catholicism, not from a version of American Protestantism. Not all “secularization” looks the same; it very much matters which religious tradition is being left behind.

Callahan’s writings in bioethics cover a wide range of issues, including reproductive technology, distributive justice in health care and euthanasia. Three moral themes that resonate with a Catholic worldview can be traced throughout his work. First, Callahan emphasizes the social nature of the self, which finds its place in a web of familial and cultural relationships. He opposes, for example, artificial insemination by donor because it deprives children of their right to a connection with a biological father. Second, Callahan’s anthropology attends to both body and soul; he does not treat human beings as minds that happen to be encased in flesh. He therefore reflects perceptively not only on issues of death and dying, but also on those of the diminishment associated with aging. Third, and most importantly, Callahan writes about bioethical issues with a lively sense of the common good in mind. He therefore has tackled, sometimes controversially, difficult questions about the allocation of scarce health care resources.

The Roman Catholic moral tradition has persistently emphasized that key moral norms not only apply to everyone but are also in principle intelligible to all people of good will, not merely to religious believers. Nonetheless, American Catholics have not been particularly successful in making their case in the public square, particularly on issues pertaining to bioethics. For a model of how to argue rigorously, perceptively and non-defensively about difficult issues of broad import, Catholic moralists would do well to turn to the work of Daniel Callahan.

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